Keys to Leni Robredo's improbable journey
Once in a rare while, the country chances upon a reluctant candidate who, during the brief period of the campaign, transforms into a natural leader.
Confident and committed, Leni Robredo communicated in an easy manner often able to “walk in the shoes of the other.” Grounded, Leni shared her vision in words readily understood by the ordinary people in tsinelas (the trademark rubber slippers her late husband Jesse used in his regular visits to his constituents in the provincial city of Naga).
Leni Robredo convened an unlikely coalition across diverse sectors of society, and seemed like the female version of the Man from La Mancha. What gave rise to this singular phenomenon? Narrative and message are the keys which best explain the unedited experience of Leni’s campaign. (READ: Why Leni Robredo is my choice of conscience)
Narrative. Leni had a compelling narrative, an inspired life-story that could touch the hearts and minds of the proverbial everyman or woman. She had God-fearing parents: a mild-mannered judge as father and a dedicated teacher as mother. She started her schooling in local provincial schools, and worked her way up to enter the prestigious University of the Philippines.
The 1986 People Power upheaval marked the awakening of the student Leni. She was a child of the people power experience, walked out of classes together with her peers and attended protest “teach-ins” at the steps of Palma Hall or marched in the streets – in the period when the dictator Marcos had warned citizens of the threat of arrests if more than 5 people gathered to meet or conspire. She interrupted her father’s dream for her to take up law by deciding instead to first work in public service, going back to her native Naga to find gainful employment while doing meaningful service.
In the process, Jesse’s persistence won her heart and she married the man who later became the city mayor. She gave birth to 3 daughters, and resumed her law studies in a local college. Leni earned her spurs as an alternative legal advocate by defending the most vulnerable in society: farmers, workers, fisherfolk, the urban poor, or those who simply needed the help of a pro bono lawyer.
While driving to the Naga airport to fetch her husband, she receives a call from Jesse then on board a Piper Seneca plane that there was probably engine trouble. That was the last she was to hear from him, as his plane plunged into the sea off the coast of Masbate. (READ: Leni Robredo remembers: The day Jesse died)
Widowed with 3 children, she did not flinch but bravely soldiered on applying as RTC judge in the capital city where her daughters were studying. As fate would have it, God had other plans and she returned to the place of her birth to contest a congressional seat. She jousted against political windmills and, in a manner of speaking, was catapulted to the stars.
This narrative formed her basic stump speech to different audiences across the country, conveying her compelling life story. Narrative trumped concepts; her life-witness communicated her ideals and ideas to people.
Message. Leni had a laser-like focus on one theme: to serve at the behest of the most vulnerable in our midst. “Ako po’y nandirito upang maglingkod sa ating mga kababayan na nasa laylayan ng lipunan ( I'm here to serve our people at the fringes of society),” Leni declared time and again as she stood for a down-to-earth way of doing politics – one that was both principled and practical involving one brave and kind act at a time.
Leni, moreover, had the heart of a servant leader. Home to her was Naga where she regularly traveled by bus even when her husband served as interior secretary. She lived simply and humbly, and run for public office only when destiny knocked on her door.
Despite limited resources, she won by a landslide against the matriarch of a political dynasty. She held office as congresswoman for less than 3 years. Her advocacies, however, were crystal clear: how to give power back to the people; to consult, listen, and learn about their needs and aspirations as a way of “governing from below."
Leni, in brief, sought to improve the lives of the poor. The clarity of her message reflected the intensity of her service. People in turn responded to the authentic Leni.
Campaign. Leni’s campaign consisted primarily of hard work that began at the break of dawn till nearly midnight; it was disciplined and on-message; and distinctive – she effectively differentiated herself from her better-known rivals, all senators mostly from storied families with ambivalent pasts or who had engaged in attempts to topple the duly-elected government of the day.
Leni came across as a candidate whose work with people was a consistent thread in her life and whose campaign was coherent with her character. While Senator Marcos conveniently forgot the excesses of martial rule and praised the so-called “glory of the Marcos years,” Leni defined herself as the opposite of the Marcos brand. While the Marcos heir, his family and supporters, had tried to revise the real history of the martial law period, Leni stood firm and took an unequivocal stand that it was imperative to acknowledge and repudiate the wrong-doings of the past.
She reminded people not to forget the names and faces of those who suffered arbitrary detention and torture, killings and disappearances at the hands of the dictatorship during nearly two decades of Marcos rule. She recalled the corruption of crony capitalism, and the need to make concrete amends by returning the ill-gotten wealth amassed in their billions that was well- documented by investigative journalists and court records alike.
In the campaign, she convened a solid core constituency that brought together a broader coalition composed largely of citizens who wished to be silent no more. Leni underscored the rights and roles of women. She was not only an accomplished professional woman, but someone who understood the hurt which touched the lives of mothers, wives and daughters.
Among the more significant lines uttered in the campaign were those she pronounced at the end of the two vice-presidential debates. Put together, they stamped her mark indelibly in the minds of Leni’s loyal army: “May the best woman win!” In a field of 6 where she stood out as the only woman who bore a timely message; the other, in the unforgettable oft-repeated phrase which captured her incredible courage, “The last man standing is a woman!”
Suddenly, as life is made up of memorable moments, the campaign lit up for it had gained not one but two apt and happy “battle cries” that summoned the energies of her followers to redouble their efforts in the homestretch.
Behind the candidate was Team Leni, or rather, different Teams Leni who waged a creative campaign that was both passionate and unrelenting which started when the candidate registered only single digit figures in the polls, advancing to double digits, till she was within striking distance of the presumptive front-runners. Professionals, retirees, wives and mothers, NGO workers, barrio and barangay residents, and groups of people she had assisted like the Sumilao farmers who marched and traveled from Bukidnon to Manila formed her awesome band of campaigners.
Individuals involved themselves by reaching out to social media groups, and texted or twittered their way through the evening sending messages that uplifted the spirits of their fellow campaigners or potential followers; some organized the series of supporters such as “Women for Leni” or “Celebrities for Leni.”
A group of millenials transformed themselves into “Marlenials” and did home-made videos reaching out to their generation in 4 languages. Others organized a jeepney run from “Laguna to Lucena” to visit voters in towns and market places while others still walked together in what became regular marches through the central business district to remind people that there can be no return to the past, “Di Na Ako Papayag.” People raised campaign funds by inviting friends and strangers alike to dinners in all sorts of venues. Volunteers did house to house campaigning while others distributed leaflets in all kinds of places. (I should know since, together with my wife and 5-year-old granddaughter, we distributed leaflets in supposedly “no-fly zones” in the malls of Makati.)
Between honesty and hope. Allow me to end by sharing a memory that begs to be told. Teaching is a largely thankless task, but once in a rare while you come across an experience rather different from the ordinary – an exception that gives meaning to what teachers do.
More than 30 years ago at UP Diliman, one of the students who sat in my class in the introductory course to political science was Maria Leonora Gerona. She was unassuming and quiet to the point of shyness. I hardly remember her raising a hand, she was not loud nor as articulate as two other students whom I had the privilege of teaching at that time: Alan Peter Cayetano and Chiz Escudero who became her competitors in the vice presidential race.
Fast forward 3 decades: a few days before the official start of the campaign season, I attended a pulong bayan (town hall) for potential Leni supporters and just before she addressed the group, past 9 pm I recall, she approached me to ask if once upon a time I had been a teacher at UP. When I said yes, Leni said simply, “You were my favorite teacher, Sir, and you gave me a grade of 1.25.”
Leni Robredo has now been proclaimed the country’s vice president. In a sense, her entire life has been a preparation for the task at hand.
Her journey has indeed been remarkable, but more remarkable still is the person she has become who combines both confidence and charisma, as well as a unique charm acquired after years of working with people on the “fringes of society.” I believe that she represents the best qualities of a servant leader – more in the mold of a public servant, rather than the trappings of a political leader. She can truly inspire the young in our midst, demonstrating by her life and struggles, that anything is possible in our land.
However, there is a heavy price to pay not only in terms of the burdens of responsibility but meeting the somewhat unrealistic expectations of the many. Only time will tell how Leni will measure up but one thing seems certain: she will have to call upon the strength of her convictions and exhibit in great measure her inner reserves of “tiyaga, trabaho, at dasal (patience, work, and prayer).”
She has turned a page, and there is no turning back. Leni, I am certain, will be true to her calling, keep the hope alive, and live up to the trust that people have placed on her: “Tiwala, lang!” – Rappler.com
Ed Garcia taught Leni Robredo at the UP, where he was professor at the Political Science Department. He also taught at the Ateneo de Manila, and likewise served as a framer of the 1987 Constitution. Previously, he worked at the international secretariat of Amnesty International and International Alert both in London for over two decades. He currently serves as a consultant on formation at FEU Diliman.